Is Your Debt Making You Sick?

Financial Goals

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In the past year, Chad, a 38-year-old former president of a social media communications company, has gained 30 pounds, seen his hair turned gray, and confesses that both his blood pressure and cholesterol have increased. The cause is none other than the economy. “The economic downturn hit us early last year when people stopped paying,” he says. “We had a mountain of uncollectible outstanding invoices.”

Like many Americans — eight out of 10 people, according to a recent poll by the American Psychological Association — Chad cites the economy as a significant cause of stress. He’s gone from being an affable, easygoing guy to a hardened bill-collector who rarely laughs, he says. Along with his health, his bank account has taken a major blow: he is currently $380,000 in debt and is dealing with the fallout of failed funding on a million-dollar project.

How Your Health Can Circle the Drain

It’s no surprise that debt with little revenue can send your health plummeting alongside your credit score. After all, says New York-based clinical psychologist Deborah Serani, money is more than just dollars and cents. It offers intangible feelings of security, power, independence, and freedom. “When our financial bedrock is shaken, not only do the numbers dwindle lower, but so, too, does our ability to cope with life issues,” Serani says. “Maxed out credit cards, unpaid bills, and mounting cash flow problems shake up our world.”

According to Serani, our bodies crave predictability. When we are taken by surprise or burdens or trauma creep in, it sets our neurobiology into a “Stress Response Cycle.” “Stress becomes dangerous when it interferes with your ability to live a normal life and do everyday things,” explains Serani. Chronic stress, which can lead to heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, impaired memory and cognition, lowered immunity defenses, agitation, and depression and lethargy can wreak havoc on your emotional and physical health, she explains. “It can be lethal.”

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

John, CEO of an Internet media and marketing company, is carrying some pretty hefty weight on his shoulders, too. Worries about his financial future and the livelihood of his employees are all but dragging him down. Despite dwindling ad revenue, he’s determined to keep his company afloat. “If I fail, I fail everyone,” he says. “I do have days where I am physically sick.”

John’s lifestyle has become so unhealthy, he says, that vacations are always about getting back, and time off is spent calculating what he can accomplish upon return, a far cry from how things used to be. “I remember stretching every last second away from the job,” says John. That meant downtime whenever possible and leisurely lunch breaks. “Now, I almost don’t have time to leave to eat. I don’t want to go.”

Red Flags and Feasible Solutions

So, how can you keep your health in check during these tough times? Quoting Shakespeare, “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” says Kathy Caprino, founder and president of Ellia Communications, Inc., a work-life coaching and consulting company. Caprino, a trained psychotherapist, says, “Debt will wreak havoc on your physical and emotional health if you continue to beat yourself up over it.” Her advice is “mind over money (matters),” with three sanity-saving strategies to be taken in sequence:

Step back to gain an empowered perspective about the root cause and the behaviors, assumptions, and beliefs that got you where you are. Look at the cause of your debt or your financial situation. Get help from outside people who can see a future vision and won’t contribute to your self-blame or feed your fears.
Let go of what is holding you back – the beliefs, actions, and patterns that are keeping you stuck and feeling small. If you’re in a mound of debt from overspending, examine the behaviors that tricked you into thinking true security was somehow outside yourself, such as your high-powered (and high-paying) job. Pinpoint what you need to let go of so you can move forward.
Say “yes” to the compelling vision that you have about your next chapter in life. This can include emerging from debt, finding a new job, or developing more security in your current one. Accomplish your goals by taking action steps: seek out a financial consultant, mentor, or coach who can help you make a solid plan to turn your scenario around.

“Our physiology has a way of letting us know when things become too much to handle,” says Serani. When agitation, lethargy, and headaches occur frequently and are accompanied by feelings like despondency, helplessness, or anxiety, a stress response may be in its beginning stages. Says Serani, don’t skimp on the good stuff. “Remember to exercise, eat healthy, and involve yourself in social activities. And, if you find yourself tired and exhausted, give yourself the rest you need.”

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